Loan program helps local farmers grow

Special to The Times

Freshly picked heirloom tomatoes sliced into a mozzarella Caprese salad are a favorite of farmer Mark Anderson, manager of Lark Farms in Fillmore, Calif.

He’s not the only one who loves Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra and other old-fashioned tomatoes. Demand for the heirlooms is high at the small firm’s sales outlets: farmers markets, including one in Beverly Hills, Madeo restaurant and a local Whole Foods.

Anderson is hoping a loan from an unlikely source -- Whole Foods Market Inc. itself -- will help him add more heirloom varieties to the four acres he tends in Ventura County.

The agricultural business has applied for a $100,000 loan under the grocer’s little-known Local Producer Loan Program launched last year. If approved, Lark Farms will use the money to add acreage or build a seventh greenhouse, where heirlooms and hybrids are grown hydroponically -- with water, not soil -- in the winter.


The additional production could help the 4-year-old farm turn a profit.

“We’re a small grower, so every little bit counts,” Anderson said.

If successful, Lark Farms would be the first business in Southern California to land a Whole Foods loan, which can range from $1,000 to $100,000. A small business doesn’t have to be a vendor for the natural foods giant, but it does need to meet its quality standards.

The pilot program, which can lend as much as $10 million a year, has about 29 loans outstanding, including four in Northern California, according to Whole Foods. It hit the $1-million mark last October but has had trouble gaining traction.

“It has been more difficult to find borrowers than we thought,” said Jenny Brown, administrator of the loan program.

The decentralized company is relying on employees who work with new and existing vendors to get the word out about the program.

Adam Goodman, a brewer in Northern California, heard about the program from some of his farmer friends and landed a $50,000 loan this spring.

Goodman doesn’t brew beer. He brews tea with sugar to create a fermented drink called kombucha. Goodman has used the money to expand production at his certified-organic facility in Santa Cruz. Kombucha Botanica, which has two employees who make 10-gallon batches by hand, quadrupled its capacity to 5,000 gallons a month.


The small-business owner, who embraces fair trade purchasing and donates 1% of sales to the local Homeless Garden Project, expects the boost in production, as well as his latest flavor -- Hibiscus Island -- to help him launch his health drink in Southern California.

The loan program is part of Whole Foods’ renewed emphasis on carrying and marketing food and products from local businesses. Inspired by the micro loans the company’s foundation makes around the world, the Local Producer Loan Program is meant to offer significant help to small growers and food artisans.

“We are going to ‘walk our talk’ with financial support for local, small-scale agriculture,” John Mackey, Whole Foods’ chief executive, said in a news release last fall. Loan details are at www.wholefoodsmarket .com/loans.



Bill aims to revise grant program

Legislation to allow certain venture-capital-backed small businesses to qualify for a federal research grant program was passed by the Senate small-business committee last week.

The controversial change is part of a bill to reauthorize Small Business Innovation Research, a grant program started in 1982. Since 2003, when a rule clarification definitively ruled them out, small businesses that are majority owned by venture capital firms haven’t qualified for the $2 billion in annual grants.

Venture capitalists and biology-oriented technology companies have pushed hard to restore access to the grants, which they say are vital to fund research and development of potentially crucial medicines and life-saving technologies.


Opponents say it gives deep-pocketed venture capitalists unfair access to grants set aside for small companies

In California, nearly 1,100 small businesses won $377.7 million in grants from the federal program for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2006.

Senate Bill 3362 would allow only a portion of the grant budgets at the 11 participating agencies to go to small businesses that are majority owned by venture capital firms, although no one firm could own more than 50% of the small business. A House version passed this spring does not include that restriction.

The Senate version increases the individual grant amount, but not as much as the House version, and it also would increase the overall size of the grant program. Proponents hope the Senate will consider the bill by the end of the year.



Small businesses add 50,000 jobs

Small businesses added 50,000 jobs in July, while medium-size businesses lost 9,000 jobs and large firms lost 32,000, according to Automatic Data Processing Inc.

The ADP National Employment Report showed private sector jobs overall up by 9,000 from mid-June through mid-July, compared with a loss of 79,000 in the prior 30-day period. The numbers are based on activity at about 400,000 of the Roseland, N.J.-based outsourcing firm’s clients.